Law firm marketers have been fundamental to the establishment and management of many law firm practice groups and client teams in North American law firms. Critical to the success of these efforts has been the ability to help train team members in their respective roles. Toward the end of my time in-house, I conducted research on what makes for a successful or failed team. The number one reason in both instances? Leadership. If you are charged with starting, running or overseeing a practice group or client team – or if you have any leadership role in your firm (such as Marketing Partner) – you might find value in this primer on leadership styles.

Many firms assume – wrongly – that lawyers are natural leaders. They aren’t. In fact, many of the skills needed by an outstanding lawyer are the opposite of those needed by a great leader. Thankfully, lawyers are intelligent individuals who can also be quick learners.   Here’s how to become a far better leader in three easy steps:

Understand Your Own Personality Type

We know that all people are different, but when lawyers move into leadership they tend to treat team members as if each of them is the leader’s carbon copy. We begin the process of overcoming this tendency by learning more about the uniqueness of our own personality. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to encourage new leaders to take a MBTI (Myers-Briggs) test. These are available on-line.

The Myers-Briggs indicator was developed to make Carl Jung’s “Psychological Types” more practical. The test determines a respondent’s personality type from 16 possibilities. Once you’ve confirmed your own personality type, take the time to learn about the other types as well. This will enable you to then surmise the personality types of those around you. Most importantly, you’ll identify the similarities and differences to your own personality type.

Why should that matter? Realistically, we do a better job of accomplishing our goals with individuals when we respect their ways of reacting to the world. It’s different working with an extrovert v. an introvert. It’s different working with someone who needs decisions as opposed to those who prefer to keep their options open. It’s different working with someone who focuses on data v. someone who focuses on interpretation and meaning. It’s different working with someone who prefers logic and consistency v. those who focus instead on the people and circumstances. If we ignore these differences and treat everyone the same, then we’ll only effectively motivate, delegate to or train one out of 16 individuals.

While this process can assist with better understanding team members, you can see how it also might help in dealing with clients, opposing counsel, expert witnesses, judges, etc. The better you understand how the other party thinks and behaves, the better position you are in to influence them.

Assess Experience and Confidence by Task

By now you will have recognized that not everyone is like you, and that different personality types might respond differently to various leadership styles. So does that mean that person A always responds best to an authoritative voice and person B always responds best to a collaborative leader? Not quite. In fact, lawyers respond best when the leader adjusts their style to the follower’s personality type AND their confidence and experience in the particular task at hand.

In the late 60’s, behavioral scientist Dr. Paul Hersey developed the “Situational Leadership Theory”.   To over-simplify, it’s a framework for analyzing each situation based on:

  • The amount of guidance and direction (task behavior) a leader must give;
  • The amount of socio-emotional support (relationship behavior) a leader must provide; and
  • The readiness level that followers exhibit in performing a specific task, function, or objective.

Depending on assessment of these factors, the tool assigns one of four colours for that individual for that task:

  • Red: They have low competence in the task – perhaps they’re doing it for the first time. Yet they have high commitment to doing the task – they want to please, or they know the task will help them in their career. This person needs a lot of instruction, but won’t necessarily need a lot of emotional support. In fact, detailed direction will probably provide them with all of the emotional support they need because they’ll know you’re there for them, guiding them every step of the way.
  • Orange: They have low competency in the task and low commitment to getting it done. Yet there must be a reason for delegating this task to this individual – perhaps they have to learn the skill, or maybe everyone else is busy and they simply need to help out. But this requires a hands-on approach: detailed instruction and constant check-ins to ensure the individual is staying on-task.
  • Yellow: They have pretty good competence in terms of the task, but variable commitment. They know what they need to do and how they need to do it. And they’ll probably do it, provided something more exciting or important doesn’t come along. This individual probably just needs to know the task, and the due date.       From there, check in with them periodically (meaning regularly), to ensure they aren’t dropping the ball.
  • Green: They are highly competent in that area, and have a high commitment to doing the task. Here, you don’t need to provide a lot of support or direction. Just tell them what needs to be done, by when, and any other pertinent parameters.

While it’s possible that a very young lawyer would be the same colour on every task you hand them, in most instances your practice group or client team members will require different levels of support depending on the task. So you may have someone who is orange on one task, and green on another. Take the time to assess them in each instance, and align your delegation process accordingly.

Pick a Suitable Leadership Style

Now you know your follower’s personality type (roughly) and what level of direction and support they need for the task at hand. This type of assessment works well, but can be impractical to use on every team member and for every action item. At times, it’s beneficial to consider an overarching leadership style for a project or group.   Again, based on the premise that your personal favorite style won’t necessarily be the best in all instances, we need a list of leadership options to choose from. One of the best lists I’ve seen comes from an October, 2011 CBA PracticeLinks article by consultant Delee Fromm in which six lawyer leadership styles were identified. They were as follows:

  • Directive Leadership: Directive leaders say “do what I tell you”. They focus the team’s attention on complying immediately and focussing in on the task at hand until completion.
  • Visionary Leadership: These leaders say “come with me”. They give people clear direction, perspective and context for their work. They encourage people to act independently but in alignment with certain declared goals.
  • Pacesetting Leadership: These leaders say “do as I do”. I other words, they lead by example, setting high standards of excellence for those they lead.
  • Participative Leadership: These leaders say “what do you think?” By doing this, they stimulate creativity and a sense of involvement in those they lead.
  • Coaching Leadership: These leaders say “try this”. This style works particularly well in developing juniors, but I also find it helpful in working with senior lawyers who need to change in some way. For these lawyers, it’s easier to approach change from a trial perspective, rather than a permanent one.
  • Affiliative Leadership: These leaders say “people come first”. They focus on both professional and personal needs, and on creating harmony, trusting that goal accomplishment will follow if the team is comprised of motivated lawyers who have bought into the goals.

So which is the best style? They all have their values. The strongest leaders tend to focus on four: visionary, participative, coaching and affiliative.   Adjust the style to the project. For example, doing strategic planning? Visionary probably makes sense. Initiating a specific change? Pacesetting may serve you best. Training a successor? Participative will be the most powerful. Dealing with issues around the culture of your team? Affiliative may be the best choice. Helping individuals to improve their skills? Coaching style can help. In an emergency? Directive will probably serve you best.

Pulling it All Together

Leadership is not simply about setting the rules or deciding who will do what. Great leadership is about getting the results you need, in a way that builds better followers and demonstrates to them what great leadership looks like. Resist the urge to lead the way you like to follow (or the way you like to lead). Remember:

  • Great leaders use different styles, depending on the situation;
  • Great leaders understand their own tendencies, but don’t limit themselves to those;
  • Great leaders understand the journey is as important as the outcome;
  • Great leaders train future great leaders through demonstration.

This article first appeared in SLAW.  Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at